Hatch Elementary School physical education teacher Sandra Noel was in the middle of balloon volleyball with her students Thursday morning when the class was interrupted.
Flashing cameras and a horde of teachers, PTO parents and Dist. 97 administration dropped in to congratulate Noel as one of the winners of the 2006 Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching.
"I'm almost speechless," said Noel, moments after the surprise presentation last Thursday.
Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn presented the award to Noel, joined by her husband Mel and eldest daughter Emma. Noel is the third Oak Park teacher in a row to receive the honor. Percy Julian Middle School sixth-grade teacher Seth Baker received the award last year. Oak Park and River Forest High School teacher Aaron Podolner won in 2004.
Noel's prize package includes a $3,000 cash stipend and a tuition-free term at Northwestern University.
A total of 10 Golden Apple winners throughout the Chicago area received similar in-school surprise visits last Wednesday and Thursday.
Noel said Thursday she heard about people receiving awards the day before. A stunned, wide-eyed Noel said she had no idea she would be among the winners.
"I am so excited," said Noel, a 30-year teacher, 16 of those at Hatch. "One of the reasons why I'm so excited is for Hatch, the kids and teachers, and the parents. This school is such an inspiration for me. And I'm so excited for physical educationâ€"that a physical education teacher is validated and valued."
Noel and Lincoln Elementary School third-grade teacher Diane Conmy were two of 850 Chicago area teachers nominated last November. It was Noel's first nomination and Conmy's second. The two Oak Park teachers, whose daughters were friends as kids, was selected with 28 other finalists in January. A Golden Apple committee of 80 individuals including teachers and principals select the 10 winners. Noel is the seventh Dist. 97 teacher to receive the Golden Apple, which has been handed out since 1986.
Noel has been involved in promoting and coordinating health programs at Hatch and elsewhere in the district.
"When she became a finalist we were really gratified because I feel that she's made a tremendous contribution here and I really think it's deserving of recognition," said Mel Noel, Sandy Noel's husband of 34 years.
He and their daughter Emma, an Oak Park native now living in Chicago, found out about the award presentation that morning.
"This is a great honor for her and she's very deserving of it," said Emma, 27, one of Noel's four daughters. She's been working really hard for kids for so many years now. It's very nice to have someone recognize her."
Noel had her students playing volleyball with balloons before Thursday's presentation, teaching them, among other things, hand-to-eye coordination, she said. Her students began cheering, oohing and ahhing, and jumping up and down as Lt. Gov. Quinn presented Noel with the award.
"We have many good teachers in the state of Illinois but your teacher, Ms. Sandy Noel, is one of the very, very best teachers in Illinois," said Quinn Thursday.
Noel thanked the school, district, parents and her family, but had a few special words for her students.
"You make me want to be really good for you," she said. "I want to do the very best for you."
Hatch Principal Sheila Carter received a call from Golden Apple officials a week prior. She told administrative staff on Wednesday and a few teachers Thursday morning. With Hatch among the schools to lose one teacher as a result of recent budget cuts in the district, the newsâ€"while a secretâ€"was a spirit lifter, Carter said.
"When I heard about it on March 6, we were in the midst of all the budget cuts [talk], and you need a little joy," Carter said. "It says we're pretty special and we have a lot of outstanding teachers."
Hatch PTO President David Hennings got a call at his home from the school about an hour before the presentation. Before going to work, he rushed over to Hatch with three other PTO parents for the presentation.
"In the last five years there's been a good partnership between Ms. Noel and the PTO," he said. "We've been trying to educate the kids about eating better. It's been proven that they do better in school. They feel better; they eat better and they can concentrate better.
"[Her award] just reinforces that health education is vital to the kids in every other aspect of education. So it's nice that they finally honored someone who has proven that and lives it everyday."
Noel is one of the few physical education teachers to receive the Golden Apple, said Greg Borkowski, director of development for Golden Apple.
Oak Park and River Forest High School physical education teacher Shirley Redmond is the only other Golden Apple winner for physical education in Oak Park. The Golden Apple Foundation, which gives out the awards, has inducted 200 teachers into its academy since the first award presentation in 1986.
"It's definitely not that common," he said of physical education teachers receiving the honor. "People tend to take it for granted and it's pretty clear in this school when you saw how her students came up to her after she won, that the nutrition aspect of things was really engrained in them."
Health and physical education was something engrained into Noel, she herself noted.
Noel, 57, grew up in the Austin community just east of Oak Park. She attended St. Lucy School, but there were no sports available to girls at the time, Noel recalled.
Noel learned to play sports after school while playing with the boys. She played every sport she couldâ€"basketball, softball and the like.
She learned how to play volleyball at Beye Elementary School as a kid, and didn't learn to play soccer until well into her 20s.
"There was no physical education for girls," said Noel. "You either played sports after school or at summer camp."
Noel is currently working on her doctorate in curriculum and instruction in education. She graduated with a double major in English and psychology from Marquette College. In 1972, she attended DePaul University, receiving her teacher certification in physical education.
Noel is a member of a number of health-based organizations, including Action for Healthy Kids and the Illinois Association of Health Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, and has worked with Oak Park's Seven Generations Ahead on healthy school lunch initiatives in the district.
Noel brought her passion for health and nutrition into her own home, her family attested.
"Oh yeah, I played every sport probably known to man," said daughter Emma.
"She's always been an athletic person who believed in fitness," said Mel Noel. "She's trying to go beyond just running physical education classes. She's trying to bring healthy lifestyles and respect for nutritious foods to students. That's become sort of a cause for her in the district."
Supt. Constance Collins called Noel a role model in the district. Collins, who found out about the award presentation last Monday, keeping it secret until attending Thursday's ceremony at Hatch, said the words "nutrition" and "Sandy Noel" go hand-in-hand.
"That's how I first got to know Sandy in the district is with her focus on nutrition," recalled Collins. "She is a well-known advocate for nutrition in the district. We were all excited about it and couldn't wait for this to occur."
Noel and other Golden Apple winners will be honored at a black tie gala May 13, televised later on WTTW-TV Ch. 11 on June 1.
She said she's happy to be recognized for physical education.
"We make an amazing contribution," she said. "To put a PE teacher up there on that level shows that we are contributing something so important."